Building team unity and figuring out who deserves the most practice time when training camp starts were two of the objectives Wednesday as the Buffalo Bills opened spring practices in Orchard Park.
“This is the day I had circled on the calendar for a long time,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said after the team went through a two-hour practice without pads. “I couldn’t be more excited, more pumped up to be out there with them knowing that we all have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Some of the developments:
• There were 88 players in attendance. The only players missing were veteran defensive linemen Alan Branch and Manny Lawson.
Marrone acknowledged that neither has been in town for any of the team’s voluntary physical conditioning sessions that started April 21. He hasn’t spoken with them, either. “It’s voluntary and we all know that,” he said. “I tend to not worry about the things that I can’t control, and obviously I can’t control that.”
• Fans should not read too much into spring performance. There are 13 practices over the next four weeks. Only the last three are mandatory. They’re all closed to the public. “I told the team today, no one is going to really make the team right now,” Marrone said. “Meaning that we’re not tackling, we’re not in helmets or in shoulder pads. We’re really not playing football to an extent where we can make an evaluation on who will make the team. You can get yourself released from this team during this time of year by being on the ground, not paying attention, not good with instruction.”
• Players who did not participate in team drills due to offseason surgeries were: defensive end Mario Williams (hip), linebacker Kiko Alonso (hip), tight end Scott Chandler (knee), cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (hip) and Leodis McKelvin (hip), safety Aaron Williams (shoulder), receivers Robert Woods (ankle), T.J. Graham (hip) and Marcus Easley (knee). All of them took part in some individual or positional work. “All those players are participating to some extent, and we’re just being very careful of how much we let them go,” Marrone said.
• With so many starters sitting out team drills, it was hard to draw many conclusions about the depth chart and playing-time rotations. Mike Williams and Sammy Watkins were the top two receivers. Corey Graham and Ron Brooks were the top two cornerbacks. Da’Norris Searcy and Duke Williams were the top two safeties. Nigel Bradham took Alonso’s place with the linebackers. Erik Pears assumed his right tackle spot.
But rookie second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio got a few snaps with the starters. Chris Hairston, formerly a No. 3 tackle who missed all of last season to injury, was on the field working fully as a backup left tackle. Rookies got a hefty share of the snaps.
• Marrone on what he’s looking for in the 10 voluntary spring practices (also known as organized team activities): “The objective in OTAs is trust, making sure that we can rely on one another to do what we ask. To be there for us and for me to put them in the right position to do the right thing. The second thing we’re looking for in this camp is communication. We need to be frank with each other. If it’s not getting done the right way, it’s not the way we want it done. … “The third thing we talked about is creating a climate of competition, which I think is important. We say competition, we don’t mean combative, we mean competition as far as being the best you can be. Right now there are 32 teams working.
“Is our walk-through better than the other 31 teams? Is our seven-on-seven better than the other 31 teams?”
• Marrone on playing-time rotations: “We want to get as many reps as possible to make sure we’re getting a good evaluation on players and what they may be able to do when the helmets and shoulder pads come on.”
• Veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams on his ninth round of OTAs as a Bill: “I think any time you come in this time of year, things start anew. You’ve got some new players, some new pieces. You’re getting acquainted with new teammates. We’re getting acquainted with a new system. There’s a lot of things to dive into. It’s always exciting starting at square one, building from the ground up.”
• Quarterback EJ Manuel on his objectives: “We definitely want to use these 10 practices, the OTAs, to get better at certain things, coverage recognition, truly getting trust with my receivers. A lot of the things we want to do offensively is timing routes. I think that’s something we can continue to build.”